The Korea conundrum: why South Korea has greater impact than China

The Korea conundrum: why South Korea has greater impact than China


In the past, China‘s cultural influence had always far surpassed its neighbour’s—the South Korea due to the latter’s close geographical proximity to the former. Yet, after the World War II, the South Korea had its own culture developed, with more characteristics of American and western culture. Surprisingly, this change strengthened South Korea’s soft power and the Korea wave has blow over China’s contemporary cultural landscape, influencing the Chinese‘s life from all aspects.


Why does China, with a population nearly 30 times larger than South Korea’s and with a government cultural budget that dwarfs that of its tiny neighbour, have so little comparative cultural influence and global soft power? Why are Korean movies, TV shows and pop music so widely distributed and enjoyed, while China’s equivalents are ignored? Where is China’s Gangnam Style?

For most of its history China was one of the world’s great cultural exporters, deploying its art, ideas, language and political values across a huge cultural sphere that included Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and other Asian territories. You could say that China was a soft power superpower.

Nowhere was China’s influence more profound than in Korea. Although Korea maintained its own distinct language and traditions, its immediate proximity to China and its relatively small population made it a virtual catch pool for the torrent of culture that flowed forth from China over the millennia.

When the Korean peninsula was bifurcated by war in the 1950s, North Korea was drawn more tightly into China’s cultural orbit, while the South pulled away. As its economic miracle unfolded and it became an export powerhouse, South Korea drifted culturally toward America and the west. Relations between South Korea and China remained cordial but aloof, and the cultural exchange between the two countries slowed to a trickle.

And then, starting in the early 1990s something unexpected began to happen. What had been a predominantly eastward transmission of art and entertainment started to flow the other way, from South Korea to China. Suddenly Korean movies, TV dramas, and pop music became hugely popular in China and beyond. Filmmakers like Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook and Im Kwon-taek were winning major international awards, and K-pop bands like 2NE1, Super Junior and Girls Generation were sweeping Asian radio and music video channels. The trend hit China with such rapidity and force that Chinese journalists dubbed it the “Korean Wave” (한류 or hanryu in Korean).

From almost the beginning, the Korean Wave comprised an astonishing breadth and quality of culture, ranging from the dark, disturbing depths of movie dramas like Oldboy to the goofy and endearing comedy of My Sassy Girl; from enthralling TV soap operas to the ridiculously infectious beats and sexy dance moves of hyperkinetic girl bands. The New Yorker recently wrote of the K-pop phenomenon:

South Korea, a country of less than fifty million people, somehow figured out how to make pop hits for more than a billion and a half other Asians, contributing two billion dollars a year to Korea’s economy… No country is better positioned to sell recorded music in China, a potentially enormous market, should its endemic piracy be stamped out.

The hanryu created much more than just an economic boon for South Korea; it gave the country political clout, the very sort of soft power that China’s leaders have openly craved for years. As The Economist noted:

The Korean Wave’s worldwide cultural influence translated into soft power for South Korea, increasing its voice in the global political arena. Due to the wave, South Korea’s national image improved noticeably from a war-stricken, poor country to a trendy and advanced one. A survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2008 found that about 80% of respondents from China, Japan and Vietnam (three of the largest markets for hanryu) look to South Korean culture with high respect.

Credit: by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

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Hello and welcome to Linko. I’m Joyce and today we are talking about Korean entertainment industry . First thing first, how many of our listeners are k-pop fans or k-drama lovers? Many of my friends and classmates have Korean idols and the great influence of Korean entertainment industry in Asia or even some western countries are undeniable. This made me curious about how did they achieve such success. If you have ever had a similar question, our article today perhaps would enlighten you a little bit. The article made a comparison between China and South Korea in terms of soft power export, which I believe is thought-provoking. Anyway, what does “South Korean” mean to you. Are your life influenced by anything “made in Korea”? Let’s share in the chatroom.

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